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Vol. 21, No. 4, 2022
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Robert Lyon is a retired clergyman who divides his time between Guelph, Ontario and Melaque, Mexico. He taught high school English, Latin, Greek and science, and served as an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. His latest book, Don’t Throw Out Your Bible, from which the essay below is excerpted, should be availalbe by the end of the year (2022). His monograph, A Christmas You Can Believe In, can be requested as a PDF file from

Many scientists in the Enlightenment era were Christians who assumed that what they were doing in their discoveries was “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” They considered that the scientist and the theologian were reading two books by the same Author: the scientist reading the book of Nature (general revelation), the theologian reading the book of Scripture (special revelation). They assumed that, because “all truth is God’s truth,” we should be able to read the two books in ways that do not put them into conflict.

But whereas science is expansive, theology tends to be static. Science explores a universe of seemingly endless possibilities; it keeps finding new things, and new ways of looking at old things, and it self-corrects as new evidence comes to light. Christian theology, on the other hand, explores a universe of about 1500 pages – literary texts handed down from cultures long ago whose understanding of the world, and whose ways of expressing what they understood, were quite different from ours.

Those texts tell us (rightly, I think) that God does not change, that God’s word (whatever you understand that to be) “will stand for ever.” But those “for evers” have fostered a belief among many Christians (wrongly, I think) that a statement of faith written with the understanding of a previous age can remain prescriptive for all future ages, despite new evidence that comes to light, whether in the field of religious studies or in the physical sciences. The finality of God’s revelation does not guarantee the finality of our interpretation. Self-correction is equally necessary whether we’re reading the book of nature or the book of Scripture. The conceptual problem here is best described in the title of J. B. Phillips’ little book, Your God is Too Small.

Some Christians have an understanding of God and the Bible that is too inflexible to entertain the discoveries of modern science. Likewise, the God whom many scientists reject (who ought indeed to be rejected!) is but a caricature of that magnificent intelligence who conceived everything they know and everything they still want to know. Of course, we can no more comprehend such a God than the family dog can comprehend what I’m doing at this computer. But in fact the dog does know me, within the limits of its doggy mind – as I think we can know God within the limits of ours. It is because of those limits, which even the ancient prophets understood, that we are cautioned against idolatry – against imagining or creating any concept or object that may portray God, or become a substitute for God, but is too small to do justice to the God who really is.


In the 2016 TV documentary, “Why Are We Here?” Stephen Hawking contends that the laws of nature afford sufficient explanation of why things are what they are and do what they do. Because matter behaves predictably according to its properties, properties that we can discover, he says that no ‘outside cause’ is needed to explain anything. The recent discovery that sub-atomic (or quantum) particles behave randomly, he notes, saves us from determinism (the idea that every outcome is forever fixed) and assures us that free will is real. Nevertheless, except at the quantum level, all things remain explainable, and limited, by natural law.

The alternative to natural law, Hawking says several times in the documentary, is magic. But magic is a fuzzy term that Hawking leaves undefined. If by magic he means events that violate natural law and are therefore impossible, we must certainly agree. But if under the label of magic he includes acts of God, events in which God may intervene in his universe, not by violating natural law (that could get really messy) but by acting within the limitations of the laws that he made, then we must disagree. The real issue, of course, is not whether God could act in such a way, but whether such a God exists at all. For if such a God does exist, then it goes without saying that he should be able to act in that way.

As you would expect, Hawking’s documentary gives a brilliant and engaging explanation of the causes that operate within the material universe. But it doesn’t answer the question that his title poses: Why are we here? At least, it doesn’t answer that question in the sense in which we normally ask it.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (about 350 BC) considered that the question Why? may have as many as four different meanings, and therefore four different answers. He called those four meanings ‘causes,’ though they are not all causes in our usual sense of that word. His ‘material’ cause refers to the stuff of which a thing is composed; its ‘formal’ cause is the attributes that describe what it is; its ‘final’ cause is the purpose for which it exists; and its ‘efficient’ cause is whatever brought it about. To avoid an infinite regress of efficient causes, he inferred that there must be an Unmoved Mover, an uncaused efficient cause, a self-dependent ‘life’ and ‘thought’ that he called God. To fully understand a thing, Aristotle thought, we need to answer as many of those Why?s as may apply to the thing in question.

Hawking’s focus on natural law addresses the material and formal causes of things – namely, matter and its characteristics. It also addresses final causes, but it can understand final causes only as outcomes, not as goals or purposes, because goals and purposes require purposeful agents and goal-setters. Likewise, it addresses efficient causes, going as far back as the Big Bang; but once it gets back there, it again faces the question: Why is there something rather than nothing? So the Why? eventually turns philosophical, or even religious, and that is the sense in which most of us mean it when we ask Why are we here? It's a question that the scientific method was never designed to answer. Within the strict limits of the scientific method, Laplace was right, Lemaître was right, and Hawking was right: as long as they were doing science, they “had no need of that hypothesis.” (A house inspector can do his job perfectly well without knowing who built the house or who owns it.) The use of empirical (observable or measurable) evidence, in controlled and repeatable experiments, is the right method for studying the sciences.

We also depend on empirical evidence in circumstances where repeatable experiments are not possible, as in law courts, journalism and the study of history. In fact, we rely on empirical evidence in dealing with many sorts of Truth questions. But it is not of much use in making value judgments, as in questions of beauty and goodness (unless we have already made up our minds on other grounds what we want to call good and beautiful). And with one exception, empirical evidence is of no more use for getting knowledge of God than pesos are for getting groceries in North Dakota. It is simply not the currency of that realm.

The astronomer Robert Jastrow writes: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story
ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

In his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), psychologist William James notes that religion typically begins not with a reasoned theology or a religious organization, but with some personal religious awareness or experience. Though such experiences cannot be validated or falsified by empirical means, they may nevertheless not be unreasonable. In 1788, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, hardly one to fall prey to superstition, described such an experience: Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

Curiously, those are the same themes that you find in Psalm 19, written some 2500 years earlier and half a world away: "The heavens are telling the glory of God . . . The law of the LORD is perfect . . . "

At first glance, those two awe-inspiring things seem to be unrelated. But both, in fact, are powerful manifestations of order: the natural order around us, and the moral order within. And both are universal. But each of us experiences them in our own way, so perhaps you’ll indulge me while I share a personal story.


I have vivid memories from my childhood, slushing through the streets of Vancouver and gazing up into the night sky, puzzled what to make of the orderly progress of the stars. Did they point to some Heavenly Architect, or to random chance? Were the heavens really telling the glory of God, as the Bible says? Or did their clockwork regularity prove only that blind matter always behaves according to its properties? Would I one day become extinct, swallowed up by eternal darkness? Or was my life part of some grand design, which in due course would reach a divinely appointed fulfillment?

That was back in the days when Vancouver reliably had six weeks of snow in winter and the night sky was not overwhelmed by the lights of the city. I had just turned ten, so I felt the problem intuitively but I lacked adequate words to express it. I found the words several years later in a university English class – on the last page of D. H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers: Everywhere [spread] the vastness and terror of the immense night – which is roused and stirred for a brief while by the day, but which returns, and will remain at last eternal, holding everything in its silence and its living gloom . . . Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted.

Perhaps you have felt that awful gloom, that daunting silence, that frightening glimpse of your own insignificance. Perhaps, gazing up into the night sky, you have felt that ultimate ambiguity in which you perceive cosmic order one minute, chaos the next, so that in an instant your emotion swings from awe to panic.

I remember, too, how that ambivalence began to be resolved in a Grade 10 science class. The teacher was drawing phloem and xylem on the blackboard, explaining how the nutrient transport system works in trees. “God!” I marveled, “I wish I’d designed that!” Then looking up at the ceiling, and beyond, I said sheepishly under my breath, “You beat me to it, didn’t You!” Sunshine surged in through the classroom windows and my heart felt strangely warmed. Here, it seemed, was evidence of purposeful design, and the purpose in that design seemed to include even me.


By Robert Lyon:








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